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Nail Polish

Story by Carolyn Oliver (Read author interview) December 16, 2019

Art by Łukasz Łada

Our first day off together in weeks, and all we could agree on was the restaurant, despite the tourists. You sat facing the window. The sunlight settled twin triangles on your torso, a rough sketch of your lungs. Your nail polish was chipped at the cuticles.

Before our drinks arrived, the host seated two women, acetone-sharp, at a table mere inches from ours. They didn’t register our presence, except for a slight hitch in their conversation when I took a sip of your beer without asking. The older of the two wore white jeans, a chambray blouse flicked with anchors, small gold hoops, enamel bracelets. The younger woman (black duster, linen pants swishing around her thin calves, a hat that belonged in California) asked the server, “Is the salmon farmed or wild?” in a way that left no doubt there was a correct answer, and every doubt as to what it was. “Tyler’s a Hare Krishna. I can never eat like this around him.” The older woman—her aunt?—cooed with interest.

What I wanted to say: Do you remember the beginning? Mushroom foraging when we needed to air out the leaky camper we’d borrowed? And then being too afraid to eat them. Smell-drunk on rain and spruce and sex. The stubble on your calves rasping my shoulders. No atmosphere between us. We made the sky with our breath.

They scraped at the salad on their plates. “Before that he was in this sexless marriage for fourteen years, and their daughter—”

“I thought you said it was a sexless marriage.”

“That’s not the point!” Their shared fries were going cold.

We took small bites, chewed them a long time so we wouldn’t need to speak, both pretending we needed to hear more to dissect it later.

What I should have said: Among everyone else, there is no one but you. I can’t remember the breath I took before we were underwater. Please, take my hand.

They finished before we did. Before she signed the check, the woman in chambray said to the server, “It’s not that big a deal, but you should know there weren’t any cranberries in the broccoli salad, like it said on the menu.”

The server went to check with the kitchen. The other woman tipped back her hat and smiled serenely. “Did I tell you we’re thinking of buying property in New England?” Her sunglasses hid most of her face. I suddenly realized sea-gray mist had smudged the harbor, heading for us. Your sunlit lungs had slipped away.

After they left, their seats stayed empty.

What I did say: “Did you remember to pull the laundry from the dryer? My navy dress was in there, and it wrinkles. It’s still too hot to iron.”

You’d remembered, of course. I looked for your nail polish when we got home, hoping you might hold still long enough for me to paint away the chips. Sky blue, the bottle said. As if the sky is only one color.

About the Author

Carolyn Oliver’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in FIELD, Tin House online, Indiana Review, Cincinnati Review, The Greensboro Review, The South Carolina Review, Necessary Fiction, Booth, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is the winner of the Writer’s Block Prize in Poetry and the Frank O’Hara Prize, and has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry. Carolyn lives in Massachusetts with her family.

About the Artist

More from Łukasz Łada on Unsplash.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Six of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Six

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